Last month I had the great pleasure of giving a talk to a group of educators, students, community leaders and a smattering of antiquity inspectors on the natural history of Dahshur.
It was one of a series of workshops and events that will hopefully lead to the area being declared a protectorate and to the extension of the UNESCO World Heritage site declared in 1979.
My presentation did not get off to an auspicious start.
After giving some general background on the biodiversity of the area, including the flora and fauna of both desert and wetland habitats, I embarked on a series of slides that portrayed the immense variety of wildlife and birds, especially those in the proposed protectorate.
I am still shaky on the Arabic names of some of the species and Amal, my charming translator, was equally shaky on her wildlife.
So when I opened my spiel with a slide of a Great Grey Shrike, I had to ask what the Arabic name for the species was.
There was a look of bemusement around the room until one of the antiquity inspectors rather confusedly shrugged and said, “Yanni, asfour!” — It’s a bird. I could almost hear him thinking, if this so-called expert on wildlife does not even know what a bird looks like, what on earth (he was probably thinking in more colorful language) is he doing here?
I now know that the Arabic word for Great Grey Shrike — more specifically the Southern Grey Shrike, the race occurring in Egypt which is now actually split off as a separate species — is daqnaash al-baadiyya.
But the point was well taken. To anyone without an interest in birds the image was just that, a bird.
My challenge was to excite an interest in the audience about the sheer variety of birds, and other wildlife, found in the area.
By the end of my presentation I really felt that interest had been aroused, and I was pleased to address a series of perceptive and interesting questions.
Of course it had nothing to do with my powers of oratory or my Martin Luther King-esque flights of rhetorical genius.
It had everything to do with the fact that the Dahshur area is home to a fabulous variety of birds: some, like the Greater Spotted Eagle, globally threatened; some, like the Glossy Ibis and the Hoopoe (hudhud), with fascinating historical and cultural connections and some that just look absolutely stunning.
By the time I got around to the photos of the flamboyantly gaudy European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, I think I had, or rather the images had, persuaded the audience that indeed Dahshur is home to an impressive array of fauna.
The pyramids at Dahshur are truly spectacular — almost as large as the far more famous monuments at Giza and far, far less crowded.
You can have the site entirely to yourself on a good day and on a bad day there might be a couple of minibuses.
But it is the lake at the base of the pyramids that is the real natural attraction of the area.
Were it not for the military trying to shoo you away with monotonous persistence, it might be almost idyllic.
I can remember one very special incident when, while scanning the swamps for elusive Jack Snipes, three very rare Ruddy Shelducks flew in, subtly resplendent in deep chestnut fading to beige on the head and neck and the male distinguished by his narrow black collar.
I had only ever seen the Ruddy Shelduck once before in Fayoum. For my companion it was a life bird — he had never seen it before anywhere, ever.
Now is not the best time to visit Dahshur but pencil it in for autumn and the huge number of migrants passing over on their way to sub-Saharan Africa, or for winter and the impressive array of waterfowl and waders.
I mention it now because while I felt pleased, upbeat and optimistic about all the work being put in to elevate Dahshur to Protected Area status, that very definitely does not ensure the safety of the natural inhabitants.
Alarming reports have been coming in of gross environmental abuses in areas that are, on paper at least, officially designated as Protected.
This summer there has been a very active Facebook campaign, lead by Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) against a proposed hotel development along the north shore of Lake Qarun in Fayoum.
I am not a Facebook fan. Indeed, I am not even sure if I have any Facebook friends yet, though probably not as I do not know exactly how you go about getting such friends.
But I joined up in a fit of revolutionary zeal for the ill-fated environmental march that was scheduled for March 25 earlier this year.
Since then I have been swamped by a tsunami of messages about Porto Fayoum, a monstrous tourist hotel development proposed by the Amer Group after they had purchased the land for a reportedly hugely knockdown price in the pre-revolution era.
Lake Qarun is already a Protected Area, declared by Prime Ministerial Decree back in 1989.
The area, some 250 square kilometers, extends over the entire lake, itself an Important Bird Area as recognized by Birdlife International for its important populations of migratory and overwintering birds.
It also extends over the desert area north of the lake, known as Gebel Qatrani, an area incredibly rich in fossils, including fossil hominids, but also an area of great archeological and historical significance.
For all these reasons it has been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation already held by nearby Wadi El-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales, to the south.
In June, Director-General of UNESCO Irena Bokova made an official visit to Egypt primarily to inspect the status of the Egyptian Museum.
Interviewed in Al Ahram Weekly, Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, supervisor of the office of the Ministry of State for Antiquities, declared that “Bokova [had] promised that UNESCO would leave no stone unturned when it comes to protecting Egypt’s heritage.”
That presumably means not turning a blind eye when an, albeit proposed, World Heritage Site comes under the direct threat of development for short-term gain and under very questionable circumstances.
That said, the Amer Group may not have the finances to develop the north shore of Lake Qarun.
I note from their website that they are currently undertaking a massive tourist development along the Syrian Mediterranean coast.
Given current events in Syria, I’m not sure the fledgling Syrian tourism industry is going to be a major money earner. Thanks, but no tanks.
For those wanting more details about the Fayoum campaign, you can access Nature Conservation Egypt on Facebook and read the No Porto Fayoum petition to be sent to the Egyptian ministries of antiquities, environment, tourism and foreign affairs as well as to the Governor of Fayoum.
The petition can be accessed via www.petitiononline.com/nce2/.
Such campaigns can and do work. Pressure from environmentalists, activists and responsible members of the tourism community can have an effect on decision makers.
This May, there was outrage when the Governor of South Sinai Abdel Fadil Shousha (yes, the same Governor Shousha who declared to virtually unanimous derision that the Sharm El-Sheikh shark attacks last December could well have been the work of the Israeli spy agency Mossad) announced that the Ras Mohamed National Park would be opened up to fishing.
There was outrage and, as is de rigueur now, an online petition was put together.
Within days, the governor was forced to reverse his decision and announce that the ban on fishing in the National Park (not merely a protectorate, as widely reported) would continue.
Egypt’s social network revolution and its power might have begun on Tahrir on January 25 — but it most certainly did not end there. et